Two captains from the 101st Airborne Division are now the first two soldiers to win the Army’s Best Sapper competition two years in a row.

Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini, both company commanders in the 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Fort Campbell, outlasted a team from 3rd Ranger Battalion and two cadets from West Point to win the four-day competition at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Each of the three teams led the Sapper scoreboard during the competition but Cushing and Palazini took over first place during a late-Sunday night ruck march and stayed on top through a final 3-mile capstone event of physical fitness events.

Teams began the final event with a helicopter flight to the starting line, then began a run with eight stations along the way including a rope climb, tire flip, litter carry and sled drags. The finishline for the final run and the competition is the gate of a red castle, the symbol of Army combat engineering.

Over the course of the contest, 50 teams competed in both general infantry skills like mountaineering, marksmanship, land navigation and reconnaissance along with Sapper-specific events like cutting steel beams with welding tools, breaching a wire obstacle, cutting timber, searching for landmines and a Bangalore breach.

Among the 100 competitors were four women, including a team of two from  U.S. Army Garrison Bavaria, in Grafenwöhr, Germany, including one half of an Army Sapper and Ranger-qualified married couple. The two women were one of the last two teams eliminated in early rounds.

For Cushing and Palazine, the repeat victory came after very different preparation. In 2023, the two were able to train together but both soldiers were deployed for much of this year’s lead-up.

“This year was a lot different. He was in Romania. I was in Germany. So we talked a couple times on the phone and we talked about goals for what we should do physically and then we executed independently for a couple months,” Cushing told Task & Purpose. “For the most part, we tried to stick to it. Things got pretty busy, at least on the Germany side of the house.”

Army photo
The winners of the 2024 Best Sapper competition: Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini.

Despite their distance training regimen, the two were able to spend one week together in Germany where they started studying for the technical aspects of the competition. The captains spent the time reaching out to their battalion’s subject matter experts “whether it was the field artillery guys for call for fire, medics for E3B medical training, the heavy weapon first sergeant for marksmanship,” Cushing said.

The most difficult technical task was the mine detector event, the captains said.

“It’s something that we as a whole don’t really practice too much and especially as officers, we definitely don’t get the training on it,” Cushing said. “How to noise cancel when you have multiple in the same area, how to search properly and what each sound means – that took a second to understand.”

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A sapper or combat engineer is trained in breaching fortifications, demolitions, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, preparing field defenses, and building roads and airfields. The 28-day Sapper Leader’s Course at Fort Leonard Wood is considered one of the Army’s toughest conventional training schools.

“It is the multi-tool of the Army. A problem comes up, everyone looks at the sapper to fix it and to solve it,” Cushing said. “We can’t let anyone else do it. It’s only just us.”

The three-day competition originally began in 2005 and is open to two-person teams who can compete each year – a difference from other Army-wide contests. 

The physical part of the competition includes nine exercises which soldiers will complete as a team while carrying a 40-pound cratering charge canister without touching the ground. It includes 50 front squats, nine burpees, 50 hex bar deadlifts, seven log cradles, 10 cratering can get ups, 50m walking lunges, 50 thrusters, a 200m carry and three-mile run without the canister.

“One of the outcomes from last year’s competition is we realized we’re not the strongest team, like we’re not the most physically fit team. There are some absolute animals here so we tried to improve our physical fitness for this year,” Cushing said, adding that their goal was to run 26 miles in boots and uniform at an eight-minute pace. 

The team improved their long distance cardio with high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, workouts every other day followed by long runs as well as crossfit-style workouts with full body barbell exercises “to move a lot of weight, a far distance in a short amount of time,” Palazini said. 

“If you can do that for anywhere from 10-15 minutes at peak heart rate, when it comes time for the competition, you’re familiar where your body’s at when you have such a high heart rate,” Palazini said.

The first day during the non-standard physical fitness test, the team ran three miles and then later that night ran four miles before starting a land navigation exercise “where we put 15 miles on our feet,” Palazini said. 

“All those physical events took place well before we got to the technical aspects of it,” Palazini said. “What was important was that you’re in shape, you can make it through those physical events and then once you’re tired, once you’re fatigued, how can you perform during those technical events. That was probably the hardest part for us.”

Cushing — who is related to a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient at the battle of Gettysburg — was born at then-Fort Bragg, North Carolina and grew up outside Portland, Maine before attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is currently in command of Alpha Company, 21 Brigade Engineer Battalion, which is currently on a rotation in Germany.

Palazini, from Massachusetts, attended the  University of New Hampshire for mechanical engineering. He is scheduled to take command of the headquarters company of the Third Brigade Combat Team next week. 

The two said they were unlikely to compete again but would coach future competitors.

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